Alien territory: the rise of UFO tourism

Far from being conspiracy theorists, many visitors to remote sites such as Area 51 and Roswell are simply adventurous travellers, keen to know the answer to the question: is the truth really out there?Thursday, 21 November 2019

From the gate, Area 51 looks deserted. It would be so easy to simply step over the dotted line in the road here, to enter America’s most mysterious military installation. But Nate Arizona knows better. 

“Don’t even think about it,” warns my previously jovial guide, brow furrowing under his neon-coloured bandana. “You’d be face first in the dirt with a gun to the back of your head before you knew what was happening.”

For alien enthusiasts, this is ground zero. The secret air force base in Nevada has been at the centre of extra-terrestrial speculation since the 1940s. Many believe UFO wreckage from the infamous Roswell Incident of 1947 is hidden inside this perimeter — along with the remains of its intergalactic pilots. Others speculate that the facility is dedicated to the reverse engineering of recovered alien technology, or even time travel. Whichever way you cut it, an awful lot of people believe that if the truth is out there, it’s probably in here. 

The ‘Storm Area 51’ Facebook joke, which went viral earlier this summer (with two million people signing up for the mass invasion of the facility in order to ‘see them aliens’) put this highly classified military base firmly back in the public eye. But another trend has been growing out here too: that of UFO tourism. 

Nate’s own tour, which also takes in the nearby Extraterrestrial Highway and the tiny town of Rachel — a hub of purported paranormal activity — recently became one of Airbnb’s ‘experiences’, and bookings are landing faster than the Martian invasion force in HG Wells’ classic sci-fi novel The War of the Worlds.

“People get very excited about coming out to Area 51, but once we arrive at the gates, they realise how serious the whole thing is,” says Nate as we march along the perimeter, looking for a better vantage point. “The US government didn’t even officially admit this place existed until 2013, after all. There are motion sensors and cameras everywhere, and they follow your every move. Don’t be under any illusion — there are multiple guards watching us right now.”  

Those guards are what ufologists call ‘camo guys’ — the real-life equivalent of the Men in Black from the Hollywood film. I’ve heard these defenders of the Earth drive unmarked white SUVs, sitting sphinx-like behind mirrored sunglasses as they trail visitors from a discreet distance. Sure enough, as we approach another gate, Nate spots a white SUV parked on a bluff, which flashes its headlights as we approach.

“The camo guys are just letting us know they’re there,” says Nate. “Don’t worry — as long as we don’t enter the base proper, we’ll be absolutely fine.”

Under these watchful eyes, we continue our exploration, Nate pointing out satellite towers, barracks and even a bizarre mirrored pyramid visible within the perimeter. As we pass, mounted cameras grind and whir in our direction and the inscrutable SUV maintains its vigilant watch.

Shadows slowly lengthening, we finally retreat to Rachel — a dusty, one-horse town a bumpy, eight-mile drive from Area 51. At its only motel, the appropriately monikered ‘Little A’Le’Inn’, manager Cody Theising says they too have seen a noted uptick in bookings as UFO tourism has taken off. 

“There’s definitely been an increase in business out here in the last couple of years; we’re seeing a lot more tours like yours coming through,” says Cody, as I sip one of the Little A’Le’Inn’s signature ‘Spiced Abduction’ cocktails next to a sign that reads ‘Earthlings Welcome’. 

“We’re still getting the diehard UFO fans, of course, but the majority of new guests are normal people like you or me, who’ve seen Area 51 mentioned on the news or in a movie and are curious to check it out for themselves. They come out on road trips from Las Vegas and they’re looking to tick this place off their bucket lists — to stay overnight and have a story and images to share on social media before driving on.”

The new (para)normal

It’s that ‘normal’ clientele on road trips, as opposed to the committed conspiracy theorists, that’s driving the current trend — causing a rise in bookings both here and at other UFO hotspots. Inevitably, that list also includes Roswell, New Mexico, the site of the most famous alleged UFO crash, in July 1947, and what many believe was the mother of all government cover-ups afterwards.

Like Rachel, Roswell has embraced its alien-friendly status in recent years, with notable sites ranging from the International UFO Museum and Research Center to a spaceship-shaped McDonald’s restaurant. Here too, UFO tourism has kicked into hyperdrive of late and the ‘grey dollar’ (as it’s been jokingly nicknamed by some in the industry, after the most frequent visualisation of alien skin tone) is being spent as never before. Dennis Balthaser, a local man who runs extraterrestrial-themed tours in Roswell, says demand is such that he’s now running them twice daily, five days a week.

“By the end of this year I’ll have cleared 300 tours,” he tells me. “Most visitors are curious about Roswell, but have very little information on what happened here. They’ve usually seen something on TV that’s sparked their interest and they make a stop here during a longer vacation — although there’s also a smaller group who’ve had a UFO experience of their own and want to find out more.”

That dichotomy, between the curious and the firm believers, echoes the experience at Area 51. In Roswell, there’s a decided international flavour to proceedings, too. 

“Several times a month I have people from the UK, China, Australia, South Africa and Japan on my tours, as well as most US states,” says Dennis. “People know that something happened here, but they’re not sure what. It’s that not knowing, that mystery, that continues to drive this. As long as we don’t know the truth, and people keep speculating about theories, they’ll keep coming to visit places like this.” 

It would obviously be bad for Dennis’s buoyant business, but does he think we’ll ever get to the bottom of what really happened during that summer storm of 1947, when the US Air Force admitted they’d recovered a ‘flying disc’, before backtracking the following day and claiming it was a downed weather balloon? “I don’t anticipate disclosure in my lifetime, but I do hope it will be revealed for young people eventually,” he says. “We deserve the truth — one way or the other.”

That quest for answers remains firmly focused on US territory, where, according to the Washington state-based National UFO Reporting Center, there were 3,381 sightings in 2018 — more than three times the annual average since records began. Either more aliens are showing up, or more humans are wanting to believe — and acting on that belief. 

As well as the ‘big two’ (Roswell and Area 51), other UFO hotspots in the US include Kecksburg, Pennsylvania — where a car-sized, acorn-shaped metal object covered in hieroglyphics reportedly fell to earth in a fiery blaze in 1965 — and Sedona, Arizona, which claims some of the most frequent alien sightings in the world, everything from colourful balls of light to flying saucers. Groups of tourists equipped with night-vision goggles, binoculars and telescopes gather here every evening to hunt for UFOs. 

Extraterrestrial income

The USA isn’t the only country experiencing a rise in UFO tourism; Chile, Sri Lanka and Japan are also cashing in on the grey dollar by inviting tourists to investigate their own otherworldly mysteries. In 2008, Chile opened a UFO Trail, centred on the northern town of San Clemente, an ET hub that’s generated hundreds of sightings. The signposted, 19-mile path runs through the Andes above the town, linking the sites of the area’s most famous close encounters. Arguably the best way to experience it is with one of the local horse-riding operators, which carry telescopes in their saddle bags and teach you about the stars while discussing the Earth-bound craft that supposedly came from them. These extra-terrestrial sightseeing expeditions typically end with an intergalactic debate over pisco sours around a campfire.

Among the talking points, El Enladrillado will invariably loom large; this amphitheatre-like arrangement of perfectly cut volcanic stone blocks was supposedly laid by the ancients as an alien landing ground. 

Sri Lanka also has its eye on extraterrestrial income, with UFO tourism focusing on ‘alien mystery tours’ around Anuradhapura, the capital city of the North Central Province, while Japan’s own UFO capital is Asuka, in Nara Prefecture. The tiny village is famed for its mysterious carved granite monoliths; the largest of which is the Rock Ship of Masuda, a 15ft-tall, 800-tonne block with a straight central ridge and two one-metre square holes cut from it.

So, where does UFO tourism go next? Operators like Nate Arizona continue to see bookings flood in — a trend which shows no sign of abating. One of Nate’s guests, Armando Martinez — a 51-year-old photographer from Denver who recently joined Nate’s Area 51 tour — tells me he absolutely loved the experience, and the images he captured on it. “The beauty of tours like this is that the places you visit are so exotic and extraordinary in their own way that they help build up the anticipation of possibly seeing the paranormal,” says Armando. “You can see that possibility right up to the security gates of Area 51, and it’s very special. 

“I think paranormal tourism is growing for one simple reason — more people are believing in it,” he adds. “Improvements in technology, particularly mobile phones, means there’s far more evidence of the paranormal being collected. There’s so much documentation out there now that you have to really step back and re-evaluate things, and tours like this are great for that kind of perspective.”

Airbnb seems to agree. According to its head of Adventures, Caroline Boone, the company has been “delighted” with demand for Nate’s ‘Paranormal Tour of the US Southwest’. “Nate’s paranormal tour offers travellers an out-of-this-world immersion in a far-off location and access to a community they might not otherwise encounter,” she says.

Back in the heart of that far-off community — namely the bar at the Little A’Le’Inn — Nate is feeling equally positive. His goal, he says, is to unite Roswell, Sedona and Area 51 into a super UFO tour, spanning three states. And with backers like Airbnb, who’s to doubt him? 

“There’s definitely something here; something big,” says Nate. “It sounds corny when we’re talking about flying saucers, but the sky really is the limit here.” 

Five UFO tourism hotspots

1. AREA 51, NEVADA 

Around 150 miles north of Las Vegas, Area 51 is part of a top-secret US military base covered by a permanent no-fly zone. Conspiracy theorists believe the area is a storage facility for crashed alien spacecraft and its occupants, something the US government has neither confirmed nor denied. Authorities actively discourage visitors from coming within a five-mile radius of the facility, but some tours will take you around the perimeter and to the two main gates.

2. ROSWELL, NEW MEXICO 

In July 1947, something crashed to earth north west of Roswell during a thunderstorm. Debris was recovered by a local rancher and quickly seized by the military. An army press release initially claimed a ‘flying disc’ had been recovered — a claim that was swiftly withdrawn, with the object now explained as a downed weather balloon.

3. KECKSBURG, PENNSYLVANIA

The town of Kecksurg is home to the ‘space acorn’. On 9 December 1965, a 15ft-long, copper-coloured object covered in what looked like Egyptian hieroglyphics fell to earth in a forest here. Plenty of locals saw it but the US military quickly arrived and spirited it away. Eyewitnesses were told to forget what they saw, which naturally caused many of them to tell everybody and anybody. In 1990, a replica of the UFO was erected, which has gone on to become a tourist attraction.

4. WYCLIFFE WELL, AUSTRALIA

Self-proclaimed UFO capital of Australia, Wycliffe Well is locate in the Northern Territory, approximately 200 miles from Alice Springs. It’s said to be one of the top five UFO hotspots in the world, and for good reason — there’s a recorded sighting every couple of days, on average. Visitors can stay in cabins at the Wycliffe Well Holiday Park, where the walls are covered in newspaper clippings of UFO sightings and you’re ‘guaranteed’ one of your own if you stay for more than 48 hours. 

5. M-TRIANGLE, RUSSIA 

Around 600 miles east of Moscow, the area around the remote village of Molyobka, in the Beryozovsky District, is said to be Russia’s answer to Area 51. Locals have reported seeing a range of phenomena here in the foothills of the Urals, including hovering lights, strange symbols written across the sky, and even translucent beings. There are also persistent rumours of people having visited the area and subsequently developing enhanced intelligence or superhuman powers. 

Published in the December 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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